Connecticut Prison Reform Advocates Call For Stronger Plan To Deal With COVID-19

As confirmed coronavirus cases within the state surpass 1,000, prison reform advocates continue to call on the Lamont administration to do more to address the health and safety of people within the prison system.

There are three groups that advocates say can't be overlooked during the coronavirus pandemic: People headed into jail or prison, people who are already incarcerated and people who are preparing to reenter society. Dr. Ben Howell works with patients who are in and out of prison. During an online panel discussion hosted by Connecticut’s ACLU chapter, Howell said Connecticut correctional facilities are not equipped to effectively monitor the spread of the virus.

“That's just something that correctional systems aren't set up to do, to quickly identify people who are sick,” Howell said, “to quickly escalate their care if needed and get them potentially to ICU level care and then be able to quarantine and move people around a system.”

The Department of Correction has a “Covid-19 Operational Response Plan” that details various gathering restrictions, visit and program suspensions, cleaning procedures, and other operational changes.  But it does not specifically identify what’s being done to monitor the health of inmates. 

Brian Sullivan is an ACLU-CT Smart Justice leader who spent 31 years in prison. During his incarceration, he said 15 of those years were spent volunteering as a hospice and hospital aid in medical units within MacDougall-Walker and Osborn correctional institutions. 

“When there’s nothing going on in the system, when there’s not the flu that’s running rampant, on a regular day, they’re overwhelmed and their resources are limited,” Sullivan said of the medical staff and facilities within jails and prisons. “When something comes in, it spreads like wildfire. Once corona enters, it’s going to be worse than wildfire and there’s nothing they’re going to be able to do to stop it unless they act now and do something in a safe and secure manner to reduce the population.”

In March, at least 400 people were released from DOC facilities as a part of routine end of sentence proceedings. As of Friday, the total Connecticut prison population is 11,982, down from 12,409 at the start of March. The Lamont administration has not agreed to release additional inmates as a way of combating the spread of the coronavirus. 

“When it comes to additional releases, we need to make sure that there's housing for those individuals, we need to make sure that there may be some kind of job training or placement for those individuals,” Max Reiss said. “We need to make sure that there's a health care system ready to accept some of those individuals. Especially...for some of the older ones who may require...some extra healthcare.”

The DOC said it will continue managing reentry planning and routine offender releases without disruption.

“By design, our correctional institutions, whether they're in Connecticut or anywhere else, are impossibly difficult places for social distancing,” said Reiss said. “However, we have to make sure they function the right way.”

The lack of social distancing within jails and prisons is why Sullivan said the administration should look to release people incarcerated for minor crimes and “community release approved” inmates, those who are on their way out but are waiting for space in halfway houses, sponsors, or other external requirements.

Phase I of the state’s plan includes a COVID-19 “offender intake assessment tool” and temperature checks for all employees at each facility location and parole offices. The DOC announced Friday that a third employee tested positive for COVID-19. 

For Claudine Fox, ACLU-CT’s campaign manager and a former Hartford councilperson, said the Lamont administration needs to create a comprehensive, coordinated plan with multiple state agencies and reentry organizations to prevent the rapid spread of coronavirus within jails and prisons.

“We’re turning our backs on a section of residents that actively live in Connecticut, our constituents, and we can’t do that,” Fox said. “It’s a call for the governor to lean into that difficult conversation. We need a plan, we’re in crisis.”

“There’s a need for Governor Lamont to be brave and decisive here,” said David McGuire, ACLU-CT’s executive director. “This has been done and red and blue states, this should not be not a partisan issue. This is about human life and public health.”

When it comes to keeping people out of prison, chief public defender Christine Rapillo said “no offense to Zoom meetings” but holding court hearings in person is the most effective.

“Technology is no substitute for being able to talk to a person if you have to do it by video conferencing, the attorneys have very little opportunity to have confidential communication with the clients,” Rapillo said. “I think people don't share as much of their information when you don't have the face to face relationship where you can build trust with somebody.”

According to Rapillo, the courts have slimmed down to working with “skeleton crews” as much as possible, which means some days, she’s answering the phones. Rapillo said she’s observed gatherings of around ten people during arraignments in New Britain, including court clerks, marshalls, attorneys, prosecutors, and observers within the audience.

As a proactive approach to slow the number of people heading into jails, Dan Barrett, ACLU-CT’s legal director, said police officers should shift to writing summons rather than arresting people and sending them to jail.

“That has to be used incredibly widely now. The police just ought not be taking people into custody and either setting bond for them and holding them overnight,” Barrett said. “And the same for prosecutors, the fire alarm has been pulled here so it’s incumbent for them to think about, is it really important for them to ask for unreasonable bond, knowing that the person isn’t going to be able to pay it because every person who goes in, you’re really exposing them and their loved ones to a real dangerous situation.”

According to Rapillo, the number of custodial arrests have “dropped off precipitously” but she said law enforcement should continue to assess how to avoid having people brought to court houses for their release. 

“It would be better if those people never made it to the court lockups in first place,” Rapillo said. “People shouldn’t be held unless they present some sort of high risk to public safety and there’s no other option. More needs to be done.”

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